A voter photo identification bill won state House approval Wednesday, a proposal now also altered to try to improve absentee ballot security in North Carolina in light of fraud allegations in a congressional district.
The House version of legislation detailing how a new constitutional amendment mandating photo ID to vote in person is carried out starting in mid-2019 also directs the state elections board next year to figure out how people requesting mail-in absentee ballots also must offer ID.
The measure now returns to the Senate, which approved an earlier version last week that didn't address the mail-in requests. That was before attention to absentee ballots soared with word that election officials and prosecutors are investigating claims of fraudulent absentee ballot activities in the 9th Congressional District.
The 9th District election results — in which Republican Mark Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes — haven't been finalized while election investigators collect evidence for a hearing later this month.
GOP Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, who is shepherding the bill through the House, says the 9th District problems are an "embarrassment and impediment to the integrity of our entire election system."
"We do need to get a handle on voting by mail," Lewis said before the House voted 67-40 in favor of the broad ID measure following 2½ hours of floor debate. "I believe that this bill is an important first step that problems like (that) do not rise again."
The investigation seems to center on get-out-the-vote activities in Bladen County, which is partially in the 9th District. There's interest in an individual contractor for Harris' chief campaign strategist known for hiring people who collect Bladen absentee ballot requests. Such request collections are not uncommon.
But some affidavits suggest Bladen County voters were being contacted by people who took the actual absentee ballots, which would be illegal. State elections investigators also have collected absentee ballot envelopes and application forms in adjoining Robeson County, Robeson elections board Chairman Steve Stone said Wednesday. All of Robeson is in the 9th District.
The House approved overwhelmingly Wednesday the specific language addressing mail-in balloting, which would also provide some exceptions to an ID requirement. But House Minority Leader Darren Jackson said the measure largely fails to offer other reforms that could reduce the possibility that someone is filling out another person's absentee ballot illegally.
"This thing in Bladen County is bringing a lot to our attention," Jackson said, "and I think we're missing an opportunity to address it right now." For example, according to Jackson, envelopes containing a person's completed ballot often are signed by two witnesses, but the form doesn't say specifically they must confirm the voter is the person listed on the envelope.
The Senate must decide now whether to accept the House changes or set up a committee to reach a compromise. Any bill given final approval goes to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, who opposes voter ID. Republicans could override a Cooper veto if they stay united. All but one Republican voting in the House on Wednesday supported the measure.